Now Playing: The DC location: Freedom Plaza, is on Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., within marching distance of the Capitol and other federal offic
Nearing the tipping point in the United States?
COMMENTARY | June 08, 2011
With Tahrir Square in mind, activist groups and individuals, some of them well known, are planning ongoing, nonviolent protests in Washington, D.C., starting in October. Their goal is to end the war in Afghanistan and work for sharp change in domestic policies. The mainstream media are not seen as friends, exactly.
One in a Nieman Watchdog series, 'Reporting the Endgame'
By John Hanrahan
A plaza two blocks from the White House is being envisioned as a Tahrir Square or Madison, Wisconsin – a place for ongoing, nonviolent citizen protest – under plans by a coalition of activist organizations and prominent individuals. Their demand: withdrawal of all “U.S. troops, contractors or mercenaries” from Afghanistan.
Organizers have begun an online campaign to solicit endorsements from groups and pledges from at least 50,000 individuals to say they would be willing to come to the nation’s capital beginning Oct. 6 – a Thursday and the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan.
One of the organizers, single-payer healthcare advocate and pediatrician Dr. Margaret Flowers, told Nieman Watchdog that the group hopes for “a sustained occupation of the square beginning on the 6th of October.” The location, Freedom Plaza, is on Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., within marching distance of the Capitol and other federal offices.
“This will not be another rally and march on a Saturday, make home movies, pat ourselves on the back, and go home,” said best-selling author (“War Is a Lie”) and activist David Swanson, another of the organizers. “We are coming to Washington to stay.” Swanson said the organizers would get permits, “but not for the length of time we will probably be there.”
As it expands, Flowers said, the coalition will add to its demands beyond ending the Afghanistan war to include other issues relating to peace, and to social, economic and environmental justice. For now, though, “we are still early in the process and have not worked out our demand process,” she said. “We want broad input into this and to use a decentralized, bottom-up consensus model of decision-making.”
On the first day of the posting for the October action, she said, hundreds of people signed up. The number of organizations endorsing the event stands at 25 as of this writing, with many more expected as these groups go through their endorsement processes.
In announcing the call for the action, organizers said they believed a tipping point has been reached in the American people’s disgust with “the atrocities of U.S. foreign and military policy” and “a U.S. domestic policy that steals from the people to add to the already hideously bursting pockets of the wealthy.” The time is ripe, they said, for a Tahrir Square-style outpouring.
“When the tipping point is reached, it seems at once both unexpected and completely obvious. We are nearing that tipping point in the United States. We have witnessed the Arab Spring and the blossoming of the European Summer. We ask ourselves if now we will experience the American Autumn,” wrote organizers Flowers, Kevin Zeese (head of Come Home America and ItsOurEconomy.us), Tarak Kauff (Veterans for Peace) and Elaine Brower (a military mother and a leader of the antiwar group World Can’t Wait) in announcing the action.
Swanson told Nieman Watchdog he expected the mainstream media to continue to ignore antiwar activities until “we significantly prevent business as usual by nonviolently blocking doors, buildings, offices and streets. Then and only then will we rapidly transition from the ‘first they ignore you stage’, to the ‘then they mock you stage’, to be followed by the ‘then they attack you stage – only if and when some major success appears likely.”
Swanson said he would “be delighted to be proved wrong” about the mainstream media, but he said “the majority positions of Americans on ending wars, taxing corporations and billionaires, providing healthcare and safe retirement, investing in education and jobs and clean energy, and so forth, are routinely ignored and belittled” by major news organizations.
Kevin Zeese echoed Swanson’s critique, indicating activists’ general distrust of major news organizations and increasing reliance on online alternative media to spread and report their message.
“We have so little faith in the corporate media that we did not even emphasize sending an announcement of our plans to them,” Zeese told Nieman Watchdog. “We know they will either ignore or denigrate us, so why bother.”
Major news organizations do indeed ignore antiwar events. It’s understandable that the big media outlets can’t cover every protest, especially in Washington, D.C., where there are so many – but by ignoring antiwar protests almost totally, editors are treating opposition to the war much as they handled the run-up to the war in Iraq: they are missing an important story and contributing to the perception that there is no visible opposition to the Afghanistan war – even as polls show overwhelming support for a U.S. military withdrawal.
Exhibit A: Last Dec. 16, in a demonstration organized by Veterans for Peace, 500 or more people gathered outside the White House, as snow was falling, to protest the war and to support Wikileaks and accused leaker PFC Bradley Manning. There were 131 arrests – including a sizable number of veterans – for nonviolent acts of civil disobedience. One of the arrestees had chained himself to the White House fence and another to a lamppost. Additional newsworthy factors: Among those arrested were the nation’s most famous whistleblower (Daniel Ellsberg); a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter (Chris Hedges); a much-praised FBI whistleblower (Coleen Rowley); a former CIA analyst who used to prepare daily presidential briefings (Ray McGovern), among others. Additionally, the demonstration seemed newsworthy because it coincided with both the release of the Pentagon’s latest progress report on Afghanistan to President Obama and, as blogger David Lindorff noted, the results of a new ABC/Washington Post poll in which 60 percent of Americans responded that the Afghanistan war had not been “worth fighting.”
Our own research confirmed what Lindorff wrote at the time: “It was blacked out of the New York Times...the Philadelphia Inquirer...the Los Angeles Times..the Wall Street Journal...and even blacked out of the capital’s local daily, the Washington Post.” NPR gave it 143 words, and USA Today 74 words. Using videos and text, the protest – including the arrests, interviews of veterans as to why they were planning to be arrested, as well as excerpts from speeches by participants – was covered by nontraditional media: The Huffington Post , the Socialist Worker, OpEd News, Salem-News.com in Oregon, and...the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.
The Washington Post ran a wire service photo of Daniel Ellsberg inside the Metro section with the cutline that he and “several others” were arrested for not dispersing. When some readers complained to Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander about the lack of coverage, he checked with the U.S. Park Service and learned that the 131 arrests was the biggest mass arrest of the year for park police – another newsworthy factor. Alexander allowed as how 131 arrests “warrant more than an inaccurate cutline” but also revealingly stated what would seem to be a common newsroom attitude: “Staged events with mass arrests don’t necessarily have high news value.” As if other large rallies just break out spontaneously without any planning.
“Happily,” Zeese continued, “more and more Americans do not trust the media” and rely instead for news on “independent media sources telling the truth,” detracting from what he called “the corporate media’s credibility.” There is also the possibility that a successful action at Freedom Plaza could attract overseas media attention.
Flowers, a congressional fellow with Physicians for a National Health Program, told Nieman Watchdog that the October nonviolent action is “a very important project in furthering the cause about which I am so passionate – truly universal health care, a single payer health system in the United States, and creating a healthier society and environment.”
Flowers said that even given the “corporate domination of the political process and the media message...Our strength is in our numbers. The majority of people want to end corporate control, end the wars, have single payer health care, better jobs and education, stable climate.” The only chance to achieve this, she said, “is to unite and engage in nonviolent resistance to wrest this corporate control away and create a functional situation.”
The online pledge to attend the Freedom Plaza protest reads, in part: “I pledge that if any U.S. troops, contractors, or mercenaries remain in Afghanistan on Thursday, October 6, 2011, as that criminal occupation goes into its 11th year, I will commit to being in Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., with others on that day with the intention of making it our Tahrir Square, our Madison, Wisconsin, where we will nonviolently resist the corporate machine until our resources are invested in human needs and environmental protection instead of war and exploitation...” President Obama has indicated a goal of a 2014 full withdrawal date, if Afghan security forces are ready to take over from U.S. and NATO troops then.
Among the other initial signers in support of the pledge are Cornel West (author and professor of African American studies and religion, Princeton University); radio and television political show host Thom Hartmann; Rabbi Michael Lerner (editor, Tikkun Magazine); Glen Ford (executive editor, Black Agenda Report); former FBI agent and whistleblower Coleen Rowley (a Time magazine co-person-of-the-year in 2002); noted civil rights and civil liberties attorney Bill Quigley; former New York Times war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges; retired colonel, State Department diplomat and activist Ann Wright; Matthew Rothschild (editor, The Progressive magazine); former CIA analyst Ray McGovern; the antiwar group Code Pink cofounder Medea Benjamin; longtime peace activist Kathy Kelly (co-founder, Voices for Creative Nonviolence); military mother Elaine Brower (a leader of the antiwar group World Can’t Wait); and prominent Washington, D.C. activist and religious leader, the Rev. Graylan Hagler (Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ).
Initial organizations supporting the action include the major antiwar group the ANSWER Coalition, Veterans for Peace, United National Antiwar Committee, Single Payer Action, Code Pink, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, the Green Party, firedoglake, World Can’t Wait, National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance, Black Agenda Report, War Is A Crime, Network of Spiritual Progressives, Tikkun, and Pax Christi Metro DC-Baltimore, among others.